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The Generalizability of Survey Experiments*

  • Kevin J. Mullinix (a1), Thomas J. Leeper (a2), James N. Druckman (a3) and Jeremy Freese (a4)

Survey experiments have become a central methodology across the social sciences. Researchers can combine experiments’ causal power with the generalizability of population-based samples. Yet, due to the expense of population-based samples, much research relies on convenience samples (e.g. students, online opt-in samples). The emergence of affordable, but non-representative online samples has reinvigorated debates about the external validity of experiments. We conduct two studies of how experimental treatment effects obtained from convenience samples compare to effects produced by population samples. In Study 1, we compare effect estimates from four different types of convenience samples and a population-based sample. In Study 2, we analyze treatment effects obtained from 20 experiments implemented on a population-based sample and Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk). The results reveal considerable similarity between many treatment effects obtained from convenience and nationally representative population-based samples. While the results thus bolster confidence in the utility of convenience samples, we conclude with guidance for the use of a multitude of samples for advancing scientific knowledge.

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The authors acknowledge support from a National Science Foundation grant for Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (SES-1227179). Druckman and Freese are co-Principal Investigators of TESS, and Study 2 was designed and funded as a methodological component of their TESS grant. Study 1 includes data in part funded by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to Leeper (SES-1160156) and in part collected via a successful proposal to TESS by Mullinix and Leeper. Druckman and Freese were neither involved in Study 1 nor with any part of the review or approval of Mullinix and Leeper's TESS proposal (via recusal, given other existing collaborations). Only after data from both studies were collected did authors determine that the two studies were so complementary that it would be better to publish them together. The authors thank Lene Aarøe, Kevin Arceneaux, Christoph Arndt, Adam Berinsky, Emily Cochran Bech, Scott Clifford, Adrienne Hosek, Cindy Kam, Lasse Laustsen, Diana Mutz, Helene Helboe Pedersen, Richard Shafranek, Flori So, Rune Slothuus, Rune Stubager, Magdalena Wojcieszak, workshop participants at Southern Denmark University, and participants at The American Panel Survey Workshop at Washington University, St. Louis.

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